Do robots dream of electronic beats? Algorave and programming as performance

In an interview with Mixmag, Jeff Mills accuses electronic music of being too middle class and far removed from political issues. Giving Pune its first taste of live-coded algorithmic music last month, a bunch of laptop musicians who assembled at TIFA Working Studios begged to differ. Here’s a comprehensive guide to how algorave performers are de-evolutionalising music as its most dexterous and daring practitioners.

Engaging with computer algorithms to produce and perform music in real-time entails taking back control from the machines, and Indian beat-makers have joined the worldwide movement that is redefining what it means to make music with a laptop. 

The idea behind algorithmic rave or algorave has existed since the advent of analogue artforms like knitting and maypole dance, although its most direct antecedents can be found in the post-industrial demo-scenes of the seventies. The term, coined by computer programmer Alex McLean, merely ascribes identity to a recent global movement – one that’s pushing the envelope for experimental artists producing electronic art in which live coding takes a central role. 

Akash Sharma, who put together Pune Algorave along with fellow live coder Abhinay Khoparzi, sees Algorave as opening the hood of the machine that makes electrnoic music and showing the audience how it is manipulated. Live code ravers today, like Luddites, simply strip back the technology to reveal the algorithmic language of music. 

An algorave performance using the programming language ixi | Prarthana Mitra

“With the source code and algorithms projected on a large screen, the concept showcases programming as an art form. Like any performance art, artists have to balance the fine line between technical proficiency and showmanship,” explains Akash. “They must both go inside their heads to understand the mathematics and logic of the specific platform they play through, connecting with the audience outside at the same time.”

Musicians are no strangers to the algorithmic structure of music. TidalCycles, one of algorave’s most popular coding platforms, has its origins, not in computer science, but McLean’s research into rhythm and cycle. 

Run the code

The production typically involves real-time creative programming, using open-source software development platforms as a musical instrument. Coders synthesise and perform live in front of an audience, projecting ‘source code’ – the innards of software – on the screen, reworking it on the fly. There is no stoppage or reboot to “assert expressive, programmable control at runtime,” says Ge Wang, developer of another popular audio programming language ChucK. There is no recording of the code beyond the performance either. Many releases are in the coded form itself, to listen, you have to run it.

Most of the stuff that happens in this specific subculture is live improvisation.

Akash Sharma

“We take routines that work well and internalise them until they can flow out of us without effort. Things tend to get very stressful as we don’t know what may or may not work on the final day. We always keep an approach to isolate specific techniques and learn to execute them in an aesthetic that fits with the venue, and audience,” Khoparzi who is a multidisciplinary creative technologist who works at the intersection of film, video, music and web technologies, adds.

Different language, shared symmetry

Akash describes Algorave India as an attempt by local artists to bring creative coding to the forefront and blur the lines between engineers, designers, musicians, and artists. It banks heavily on the formation of inclusive communities that generate algorave’s critical feedback loop: code>music>dance>code

Algoraves are usually safe spaces with transparent communities. Many electronic musicians have gravitated to this form of production owing to the hacker-friendly nature of algoraves. Others like Mexico-based live coder Alexandra Cárdenas shifted from a classical music background upon discovering how open-source environments circumvent the limitations of commercial software.

Performing algorave as tiemposdelruido, Alexandra contends in an interview that live coding is revealing and frees music “aesthetically and technically from consumerism.”

On asking Khoparzi what this means in the Indian context, he says, “The fact that we all use free, open-source software gets people more interested because we are not showing off gear that no one has access to. They can go home, download the software on to their computer and get started being creative as long as they have access to even a 10-13-year-old computer.”

Khoparzi performing his set | Prarthana Mitra

He is not wrong. Home-built systems are common, and nearly everyone uses some combination of open-source synthesis engines, compiled code, and downloaded libraries. MacBook Pros abound, but some artists run customised hardware.

Coming to the language of choice, most live coders like him use programming software like SuperCollider, TidalCycles, Gibber, ixi lang, Overtone, Quil and Extempore, which gained popularity only in the late 00s, and offered open-source live coding environments, implying they are free and can run even on the cheapest hardware.

Khoparzi recalls swearing by Max/MSP (now a part of Ableton Live) and Pure Data in the 00s when he worked as a visual artist on installation projects. The high cost and maintenance made him shift to Reaktor. After he began producing “little sound making utilities to add a bit of generative flavour to his friends’ music” and even when he became involved in motion graphics and video production, Khoparzi persisted with scripting and generative methods because they proved useful in the “repetitive parts of the work.”

“Languages like Python and Javascript integrated very well with After Effects and Nuke. I later picked up a platform called Processing that works with Java (which I only had a limited understanding of at the time). I eventually left the country for further education and ended up bumping into the larger creative coding community all over the world. This is when I started educating myself in C++ to leverage the power of OpenFrameworks, a library that uses a very similar pattern as Processing but is far more powerful,” he recounted. At TIFA, Khoparzi dabbled in SuperCollider and Troop to play with time signatures, produce broken beats and simulate projectile IDM that sounded positively post-apocalyptic.

Artificial intelligentsia

The first breakthrough for algorave arrived in 2004 with the founding of the Temporary Organisation for the Promotion of Live Algorithmic Programming (TOPLAP). Dedicated to showcasing the algorithmic behaviour of music and the musicality of code, it was one of the first concerted efforts to distinguish this new music and dance culture from deejaying or software engineering.

Generative visual artists came to be a critical player in the movement. Using live coding visual environments like Visor and Hydra, they created “profound digital paintings”, closing the gap between live coding and VJing by offering graphical interfaces to interact easily with Processing sketches coded in real-time.

Pioneering a creative and holistic approach to programming, the algorave movements helped bring human, machine and code to the performing arts – and electronic artists soon realised how technological appropriation was not only a novel sound and visual creation technique but a gateway to exploring new relationships and discourses.

In Pune, the five live coders along with pifi’s VJ Mesh managed to simulate an immersive and fresh audio-visual experience.

Projections by Khoparzi | Prarthana Mitra

Besides the literary, political and cultural concepts embedded within the codes and corresponding visual projections, on a self-reflexive level as well, my first algorave was both a ludic and an introspective experience. As a confessed AI-sceptic and deep learning conspiracy theorist, I have a tough time reconciling with my love for electronic music and generative art. But my initial impression of algorave, that it is the antithesis of immediate physical musicianship and far removed from the physics of tactile sound, was short-lived.

I was confronted with the mathematics of music through a presentation that is not just politically aware, but immediately arrests and sustainably demands your attention. This, to me, makes for essential debunking of the criticism against millennial music, that it “caters to a shortening attention span.”

WIRED columnist Michael Calore who attended the Algorithmic Art Assembly in San Francisco this March, corroborates this saying, “Nearly every one of the hundred or so people in the room, myself included, is staring intently at the action playing out on the screen. But what’s being projected is not some psychedelic animation, alien landscape, or whatever other visuals you’d expect to see at an electronic music gig. What we’re watching is code. Lines and lines of it, filling up the black screen in a white monospace font.” 

Do robots dream of electronic beats?

Although the music itself has a common aesthetic and a chaotic and aggressive style of electronica popularised by UK band Autechre, artists veer in other directions too. Go to an algorave, and you’ll hear ambient sets, dub explorations, and even some straightforward dance music. Just that the tracks are built up through manipulation of programming code.

Substance_d, who has been generating sounds and music using algorithms and data since 2013 for Sound Art Installation, told me later he mostly enjoys field recordings, minimal noise and drone music. But for algorave, he opts for party music to draw more people and democratise creative coding. He closed the Pune show with an electrifying code recital, belting out piano tunes to accompany his beats. With a body of work spanning visual art, data mapping, data manipulation, algorithmic compositions, and sensor-based music, his set was accompanied by visuals of a dystopia we are more familiar with – that of a nuclear holocaust.

“The connection is purely my visual expression to the aural experience that I was creating, like démarche or Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s symphony for Chernobyl and Hiroshima,” he explains. “The protest images were from two villages one being Jaitapur (Madban) in Maharashtra and Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu,” he adds. “Mainstream media hardly reports on routine emissions from these reactors, the management of nuclear waste and how it affects our water and food chain, decommissioning costs and effects, and so forth,” he says. A more simplistic reading would be death by machines, but instead of a sobering effect, his amoebic code is having a levitating impact, causing people to rise, sway and stomp their feet to the beats.

When people dance to algorithms, is the body a distant fact?

As the night rolled past nine, Substance_d, Khoparzi, along with writer-performer, Sarah Bahr coded into each other’s algorithms, bringing the audience back to the dancefloor.

Sarah Bahr’s Sba0h0r0 sought refuge in ixi lang and TS Eliot, bringing novelty to her set. She played around with this new coding language created by Thor Magnusson, adding an array of prefixed sound effects to build up from a sparse soundscape to a subversive piece replete with deliberately jarring sound effects.

With a background in theatre, fine arts and experimental music, her performative avatar is a malleable alter ego, and she enclosed a cloze text for me to fill up when I ask her about it. 

“My current musical inspirations come from contemporary free improvisation (from France, Germany at the moment); people that built their own instruments or developed their very individual playing techniques,” she said. For her performance, she used her recordings of voice, church bells, crickets and a very short citation of the beginning of Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schönberg.

In Pune, she wove literary texts into her performance as well, picking up couplets from TS Eliot’s The Wasteland that resonated with the sound. When I asked her about it, she explained how she envisaged it as a soundtrack for the section of the poem titled The Games of Chess. “It was a spontaneous decision while listening to my field recordings, I thought of these lines, this dialogue between a man and a woman:

Sarah Bahr (foreground) performing an algorave set along with Substance_D (extreme right) | Prarthana Mitra

“What is that noise? – The wind under the door. – What is that noise now? What is the wind doing? – Nothing again nothing.”

“I was also reflecting on my own position as a female in this generally very male environment (both coding and contemporary music). But I also thought of this piece of poetry for its relation to the idea of sampling. It is full of citations, patterns and loops; themes and variations – a very musical piece actually,” Sarah said prompting my next question.

When I ask her about the reputation algoraves enjoy for offering a gender-inclusive performance space, Sarah says, “Generally speaking, it seems to me that live coding is indeed a practice that allows creating frameworks of sharing and inclusiveness and if I speak from my own experience I would say yes.” Khoparzi who notes the dearth of women coders, however, says that in his experience, female attendance at algoraves is often high.

Besides, he says, “We actively try to be open about the types of sounds, styles and skill levels to ensure more people join the community. We always keep the stakes low and keep reminding the audience that it’s good that sometimes things don’t work well even when all eyes are on the performer, because then we can collectively learn from what went wrong and try to correct/improve it the next time around,” Khoparzi says.

Man vs machine

The only other female coder at Pune Algorave, Raia, played her set via live stream, offering an overarching statement on the limits of control. Fraught with lags and connectivity issues, hers was a set that stood out nonetheless, for its individuality and RnB influences.

Overheating is also quite common with music coders, Joshua Thomas who opened the evening, said, after the first attempt at simultaneous coding resulted in a jammed circuit. A podcast producer for The Indian Express, Joshua as Tig3rbabu rummaged through his Malayali roots and performed pop covers over his live-coded OCs. Sometimes, glitches can lead to “happy accidents”, he said, corroborating what McLean long-held, that algorave is always messy and glitchy. 

Computer love

There is a widely-held belief among these musicians that live-coding can also be a powerful method of teaching computer programming. Sarah confessed to having never done live coding before the Pune gig. “The performance you saw was my first algorave. I’d started learning it two days before. I did it on Khoparzi and Akash’s invitation who want to encourage people into live coding by lowering the threshold of bias and intimidation,” she added. 

“Since live-coding comes from “open source” and DIY, you don’t necessarily need to have a ten-year-long education in some school of music or a solid background in coding or engineering to be able to get to some interesting results. And concerning the aesthetics, yes, depending on the platform you are using, or if you even create your own tool, it seems to me that you can do anything you want,” Sarah replied when I ask her if she thinks this specific subculture chips away at consumerism.

Algorave has certainly given laptop musicians a large platform and audience. According to Khoparzi, “The pedagogic angle at our workshops where we share all our code has had people a lot more interested in coming over and exploring the events.”

“Back in the day, for example, when IDM hadn’t quite permeated the cultural zeitgeist, we used to organise events which had a handful of people dancing while the rest tried to figure out if it was a glitch,” Khoparzi adds.

For Akash, the intention is to create algorithms with the audience. “The experience then becomes information,” he tells me. “Possibilities open up the moment we start communicating with machines using the language they understand rather than obeying to click on Next or OK.”

“Algorave is a celebration of the purest representation of electronic music, Akash muses. After a brief pause, he adds, “I look at Algorave as poetry in a language machines understand, but humans perceive as unintelligible sounds.” In other words, the Algorave culture offers an inevitable but harmonic merger of animate life and inanimate technology. That is perhaps why live coding, far from being revolutionary, is, in fact, de-evolutionary.